Emperor’s clothes – convenient concealment

John Curran seems to have some of the attributes of an upstanding local county council member – so why is it the Falcarragh man failed to win one of the positions in last months’ elections in Donegal?

Especially as anyone with a snippet of local knowledge knows that at least one other candidate – Terence Slowey – by virtue of being found guilty of ‘double dipping’ on expenses, may be less deserving of a seat.

Could it be that John’s failure reflects the ordinary person’s displeasure with the lack of transparency by public bodies in Ireland and manipulation of public money to benefit the already well-to-do?

John Curran

John is a married man and father, a qualified solicitor and has experience within the county council, as well as in the voluntary sector – indeed he is now director of Donegal Volunteer Centre. More than that – he avows to be deeply interested in community affairs.

Okay, John has deep political ambitions but, hey, what’s wrong with that?  I would hope all of the candidates – the successful and the less so – had this in abundance. Otherwise they’re not worth voting for.

So what went wrong?

How is it others, with – in my view – much less integrity – won out over John? To some readers of this blog, these words may come as a surprise. After all, John lambasted me personally over the last month or so in the print media, on the Highland Radio airwaves (see A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal) and in his own Facebook, for daring to call for greater transparency on the proposed three million euro spending on an addiction clinic in John’s hometown.

Ironically, that was John’s big mistake.

Did John feel – as a government candidate, with money and party behind him, as well as being a board member of Údarás  na Gaeltachta – that he’d be a shoe-in? Perhaps. I’m not sure. What I am sure about, however, is what he didn’t realize – that people – young and old alike – in this rural area of northwest Ireland are, as one native-born Donegal man put it so poetically, ‘cute hoors.’ In more diplomatic language – they know a maverick when they see one. As Gaeilge, ‘amadáin’ they’re certainly not. Not a one of ‘em.

Running on a Fine Gael ticket probably didn’t help (John could have run as an Independent but, offered a chance to speak at the party’s pre-election Ard Fheis, he decided not to). But his failure to win a council seat amounted to much more than that. After all, Fine Gael candidate, Jimmy Kavanagh, was elected.

By heeding the advice of the golden circle who support him in the Donegal Gaeltacht and who are making big money off the public purse in northwest Donegal, mainly through the goings-on at Údarás, and by attempting to turn a simple call for greater transparency – which in other democratic societies would be considered a normal request (in fact, one that should have been led by John himself) – into a ‘personal’ issue, he – with unfortunate consequences for himself – overstepped the mark.

People in the Donegal Gaeltacht may sometimes be blindsided, but they’re not blind. They may be silent sometimes in face of authority (it’s inherent in our Irish nature, conditioned over generations) but they aren’t voiceless.

And at the recent elections they made their voices heard.

Though only a brave few – among them, Owen Curran, Theresa and Caroline Woods, Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods; Gerard Gallagher and Martin McEhlinny – take to the streets regularly in northwest Donegal to protest injustices – deep down (maybe not so deep), many people are upset. They saw that somebody, some people, some institutions  – including the Catholic Church and Údarás  – were trying to pull the wool over their eyes over the addiction center. They noticed clearly that not enough open discussion was taking place over a major proposal that not only would cost the public around three million euro, but would leave very little, perhaps nothing, for other projects in Falcarragh and other areas of the Donegal Gaeltacht (do you really think other Gaeltachts in Ireland are going to readily vote even more money for Donegal over the three million euro, and from a dwindling public purse?….please).

So what exactly is it that is so sensitive about this proposed addiction centre that it needs be kept so tightly under wraps?

Ballyconnell House

With no answers forthcoming from Údarás na Gaeltachta itself about costs and benefits (see Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer), I offered the opportunity directly to Cuan Mhuire – the Catholic Church group of nuns that badly wants this public money for the centre (the second such one in Donegal, a very unusual situation for a county with such a small population). The questions were sent to it before the news broke nationally and internationally about the dumping the bodies of around 800 dead infants in and around a septic tank in Tuam by nuns.

An interpretation of this organisation’s response, or lack thereof, indicates the clinic may focus on sex addiction treatments for convicted clergy, as well as for abusers of drugs and alcohol and that Cuan Mhuire may indeed – as earlier media reports suggest – be guilty of allowing convicted paedophile priests to conduct religious services inside its other addiction clinics in Ireland. And may do so again in Falcarragh if the proposal goes through. And perhaps it’s quite convenient for it to do so – treat convicted clerics, both nuns and priests, for sex addiction and have them conduct religious services inside the centre – in the northwest corner of Donegal. Such nefariousness would thus be far from the glare of the national media.

If Cuan Mhuire were a responsible organization, with nothing to hide, it would have answered, perhaps not every question, perhaps not in the detail that would be reasonably expected, but answer it would. If a responsible organization with the concerns of the local community at heart, it would have realized how sensitive this addiction centre proposal is and deal with the concerns in an open manner.

Instead, Cuan Mhuire, a fully-controlled arm of the Catholic Church, acts as if it’s above the societal norms we others must adhere to – and therein lies a great danger. In the past, and still now – while ordinary people, ordinary community groups, follow rules and regulations that make for a stable, secure world – the church considers itself above the law. That is a frightening path.

In conclusion, if John Curran really wants to be considered a serious candidate for future public office (remember, he was appointed to the board of Údarás by the Government, not elected by the people), he cannot be simply a toadie for a political party or an institution such as the Catholic Church or Údarás. He must do what any decent board member is supposed to do – something, unfortunately, we have NOT seen successive board members at Údarás and most other Irish institutions from FAS to the Central Remedial Clinic do: take his responsibilities seriously and both oversee public spending and the overall health of the community properly.

Cults, sects and mindless mayhem?

Before the elections, in a FRONT page editorial in the Irish Independent (a most unsuited and unprofessional place – see explanation at bottom of article), Fionnan Sheahan, group political editor of Independent Newspapers, described Sinn Fein as a ‘cult’ and a ‘sect’ whose followers were mindless.

Seeing that this particular political party has just won 157 local council seats nationwide in the Republic with 15.2% of the national vote (not to mention 105 council seats in northern Ireland with 24% of the vote), that’s a helluva lot of mindless people.

Will Mr. Sheahan now apologise to such people publicly in the same manner that he attacked them? Or will arrogance and pride prevent him and pave the way for a continued drop in circulation and quality of a once decent newspaper (one I proudly worked for at the start of my career 30 years ago)? Or is Fionnan’s job so dependent on the blatant bias of the media group’s dominant figures – Denis O’Brien (who was shown by the Moriarty Tribunal to have bribed former Fianna Fail Communications Minister, Michael Lowry, to win a mobile phone license), and Tony O’Reilly (who, after recently announcing bankruptcy, owes you and I more than four million euro after buying a luxurious holiday home in Glandore, west Cork with a loan he can’t now pay back) – that he will continue doffing his cap as a D4/ establishment spin-doctor and apologist?

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Can some political commentators not see the forest for the trees?

And not only.

A few weeks ago on Highland Radio’s Friday morning ‘Press Round-up,’ one of the so-called experts – a woman – said Gerry Adams should resign as Sinn Fein party president – and this was after Mr. Adams had just been voted in an ‘Irish Times’ opinion poll as the nation’s most popular party leader. Consider this unwarranted barb in view of the massive gains Sinn Fein has just won across the nation in this weekend’s local, national and European elections under this man’s leadership.

Will that particular woman now apologize? Not simply for a poorly-informed broadside but what is, in effect, blatantly obvious bias. Surely, Highland Radio, a station fighting for license renewal, can find more objective commentators than this person. As both chat-show program host and station managing director, Shaun should pay closer attention to what emerged from the ‘Media Freedom‘ conference I attended at UNESCO headquarters in Paris recently. Can anyone guess the identity of the woman in question?

But back to the recent elections.

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Turning of the tide?

Some commentators would have us believe they were astonishing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They were quite the opposite – predictable – based on the trend already set three years ago when Sinn Fein went from four TD slots to 14. Of course, Sinn Fein and Independent generous gains in this week’s elections were accelerated this time round by the abject failures and litany of broken promises by Labour and Fine Gael. With the smell of Fianna Fail corruption still rank in our nostrils, and the ‘old guard’ still there in abundance, it hardly provided an alternative, indicated by its abject failure to have anyone elected in the two by-elections and Pat the Cope ‘(the Pope’ as RTE miswrote in a news Twitter) Gallagher’s failure to hold his MEP seat.

A quick glance at some of the specific results indicates the extent of the triumphs of Sinn Fein and the Independents:

  • Four Sinn Fein MEP candidates – four MEPs elected: Liadh Ní Riada; Lynn Boylan; Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy.
  • Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan topping the poll in the Midlands–North-West constituency;
  • Sinn Fein trebling its local council tally by winning 157 seats nationwide, and in the process becoming the largest single party on the Dublin city council;
  • Independent Marian Harkin defeating sitting MEP Pat the Cope in Midlands–North-West;
  • Sinn Fein securing the single biggest number of first preference votes in northern Ireland’s local government elections while winning 105 council seats;
  • Independents (including the Socialist Party, the Greens, and People Before Profit Alliance) won around 30 per cent of council seats, up from 18 per cent at the last local elections in 2009;

The list just keeps going on, including Sinn Fein winning local council seats it has not held since the foundation of the state, an incredible historic feat. It is something Donegal-based Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein’s electoral director should be extremely proud of, especially in the run-up to the 1916 centenary commemoration celebrations.

So what happens now? Well-paid Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour spin-doctors – Charlie Flanagan, Pat Rabbitte and Timmy Dooley respectively – have already been out in force on RTE, and other media, this week. They allege – conveniently forgetting that this particular political party has governed alongside its arch-rival, the DUP, for 15 years in northern Ireland – that Sinn Fein cannot govern because it has not learned the art of compromise. In fact, it is one of the very skills Sinn Fein has learned and in the toughest classroom there is – the boiling cauldron of politics across the border. Maybe the faux pas made by Jan O’Sullivan, Labour’s junior minister, on RTE Radio 1 show last Sunday that her party ‘is a mudguard for Sinn Fein’ is more accurate than she cares to believe.

The spin-doctors also say the Independents are a motley group of disparate individuals, again conveniently forgetting that they all, in effect, stood together in unity against harsh austerity and for social justice and fairness – hardly irrelevant issues. Theirs is also a highly pompous and condescending comment to make about ordinary citizens who voted en masse for this so-called ‘motley’ group.

No doubt, Sinn Fein and the Independents will be in the crosshairs of examination over the next two years as the next general election approaches but their strength is that they are bonded by a common purpose. Watch carefully as they come together in unity and forge a partnership to create a more equitable society within Ireland. As they attempt to avoid being the victims of their own success, maintaining organization and structure will be a challenge.

It was also extremely heartening to see so many women win council and MEP seats. Four of Ireland’s 11 elected MEPs being female Sinn Fein candidates while in the two by-elections, Ruth Coppinger won Dublin West for Joe Higgins’ Socialist Party and Gabrielle McFadden of Fine Gael won the Longford/Westmeath seat previously held by her sister, Nicky. Well over 20 per cent of councillors elected are women; 32 per cent of votes cast in Dublin were for female candidates and in some areas 4 out of six councillors are now women. Over 30 per cent of Sinn Fein council candidates were women. Women won 197 out of 943 local seats with campaign group ‘Women for Election’ saying this represented a 33 per cent increase. However, even with this improvement, Ireland remains about 90th in world rankings in terms of women in politics.

However, at last, as this week’s election results show, Ireland is beginning to wake up to reality. We Irish may lack the passion, initiative and courage to go on the streets as did the Greeks and French but we are fortunate to have been given a second chance following our poor voting performance two years ago (echoes – as happened after the 1916 debacle) and have made our voices heard in the polling booths. Rejection of establishment politics and the obvious economic disparities between poor and rich here, has meant Ireland has finally, to a large extent, grown up, matured and begun to shrug off out-dated, horse-blinkered generational politics.

As for Lugh’s choices for my area of the Glenties here in northwest Donegal, I am delighted to say that the little Celtic hero predicted not just the winners, but also the exact order in which they came past the post, viz-a-viz

Marie Therese Gallagher, Sinn Fein

John Sheamuis O’Fearraigh, Sinn Fein

Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig, Independent

Ireland’s future suddenly seems brighter!

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A new dawn is upon us.

NB: Explanation as promised

In journalism, as a mark of respect to the intelligence of its readers, quality newspapers reserve their opinion columns and editorials for inside pages, designating the front page specifically for informed and – as much as possible considering we have human frailties – objective news upon which readers make up their own minds on key issues. Thus Independent Newspapers broke a golden, nay sacrosanct, rule of journalism, ignoring the fact that only idiots need to be spoon-fed like infants. That may have worked in the past. Not anymore.

Next week’s blog – Remaining on the subject of local elections: how is it a candidate, such as John Curran, failed to get elected in the Glenties to the Donegal council? Was it linked to the severe lack of transparency that has corrupted Irish politics for so long and that still hovers over the workings of Udaras na Gaeltachta of which Mr. Curran is a board member? Or simply that he was the Fine Gael candidate? Next week, I publish the responses from Udaras to questions regarding payments for executive pensions, a breakdown of job creation figures for the Donegal Gaeltacht and total investment in a proposed church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh. As well as responses from Cuan Mhuire as to whether it shelters convicted clerical child abusers and will provide sex therapy as well as other treatments at the proposed centre.

A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal

Finally, greater public debate has begun about the financial operations of Udaras na Gaeltachta, an organization rapidly acquiring the sobriquet ‘the secret society,’ and more specifically about spending on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh.

Udaras, having managed to keep the lid on potential spending of between one and three million euro on the centre at Ballyconnell House, had board member and Fine Gael political candidate, John Curran go on the local airwaves over the last few days.

Instead, however, of presenting relevant information on the proposed project’s costing and benefits, he used valuable airtime on Highland Radio to personalize what is a legitimate community issue and attempt to tarnish it as an isolated ‘Sean Hillen‘ one.

Let me make it perfectly clear, if I have not done so already: I am not against or for an addiction clinic in Falcarragh. I have no implication, financial or otherwise in this project (can pro-addiction clinic supporters say this, hand on heart?). Golden axiom in journalism: ‘follow the money.’

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Ripples of democracy begin to spread.

Another axiom for journalists, ‘if they cannot deal with the story, they will try to deal with the story-teller,’ seems more than obvious in this rather unsavory situation. I have heard myself referred to on Highland Radio by Mr. Curran as someone ‘stirring the hornet’s nest’ and as ‘an agitator’ (I have complained formally in writing to the station’s managing director, Shaun Doherty, whose daily news and chat show and Friday morning ‘press round-up’ I have appeared on several occasions, about these personal attacks). In a strange twist to the tale, there was also a reference (a cross between Harry Potter, Star Wars and superhero comic books) on Mr. Curran’s Facebook page to ‘dark forces’ behind me. All in all, it seems spin-doctoring is the unfortunate path Mr. Curran and his political advisers – and those faceless men with most to gain from the addiction clinic – have taken. That’s their prerogative, but it is unprincipled. And utterly untrue.

Owen Curran (no relation to the above), a well-respected community leader in the vanguard of the four-year long Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against household and water charges, told me this week Udaras na Gaeltachta should release immediately costs and benefits information on the proposed church-run addiction clinic and was in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ saying so again (page 17 – by the way, the story headline says 90 people, but I could only count 35 in photo, can’t believe someone would be left out; see also letters page 18, ‘Abused while on the canvas’). “Unfortunately,” he told me. “We live in a time of austerity, a time when there is not a lot of money around, we also live in a time when there has been a severe lack of transparency and accountability in Irish state and semi-state bodies. As such, and with the local Udaras office in Donegal receiving millions of euro every year, it is only fair that ordinary people – whom this proposed project will affect dramatically – be given as much information on the size of the investment and the benefits, including what guarantees there are for what of jobs. Open forums are obvious avenues for discussions to which all members of the community should be able to attend and voice their opinions.

Not only.

Sinn Fein local council candidate, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, who appeared on national television (TG4 ‘An Nuacht’ last Saturday evening) on the addiction centre issue and is quoted in the ‘Donegal Democrat’ today, also called for greater transparency from Udaras. “I have been reliably informed this project will cost between one and three million euro,” the local Gaoth Dobhair-based youth worker told me. “This is yet another example of a very costly project that has not been fully considered, with a marked absence of open public debate involving local people. A lot of money will be spent on this one, single project. As there is not a lot of funding around nowadays, local people have the right to know how much public money exactly will be involved, if this money is being well spent and how many other projects will suffer funding loss as a result. Also what affect it will have on the image of the community. They also need to know what guarantee, if any, there is for local people and what quality and pay-scale these jobs will be.

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Spring at Ballyconnell House

Not only.

Fianna Fail local councillor, Seamus O’Domhnaill, has now also called for Udaras to hold a public meeting to discuss the Cuan Mhuire addiction project. As the Donegal Gaeltacht is much more than just Falcarragh, it is important that ‘meetings’ not ‘meeting’ be held, to give the 16,000 people in other parts of the county’s Irish-speaking region (including its three main areas, Na, Rosa, Gaoth Dobhair and Cloich Cheann Fhaola), a chance to air their views on such a costly venture.

Last Friday afternoon, an open-air petition-signing took place at Falcarragh crossroads calling for more funding for cultural tourism projects in the area and greater public debate over the proposed addiction clinic to be run by Cuan Mhuire, a church-run company, drew open, lively debate. Among concerns voiced were the project’s impact on the safety of local children; future restricted access to the estate’s grounds, the location for a series of annual community events and festivals; and resulting reduced funding for other projects, including those for cultural tourism.

Mary McGarvey, who claimed she owns property on Falcarragh’s Main Street, said at the petition-signing table that the centre would be good for the town’s business while a mother and local festival committee member said while she would “prefer a well-considered leisure facility, especially one for children, something should be done about that derelict house.” Cloughaneely Golf Club members at the petition table complained of reduced funding from Udaras and feared for the club’s survival.

It was, to use an ancient Greek term, ‘agora’ day in Falcarragh and in the classic Greek version of democracy, it was ‘agora’ in terms of open debate and exchange of views.  Why could Udaras not have done this? Why not now in open forums, especially as the seal of secrecy has been prized open?

Sadly also, people on Friday afternoon said they would like to sign the petition but were afraid to do so – including someone (whose identity will remain anonymous for obvious reasons) representing a local arts and cultural project – saying she feared being punished by Udaras and receive no funding in future from it for projects she might put forward. One person even called me after signing the petition (adding that he thought Udaras should “be disbanded”) saying some people had “approached” him and that he feared he might lose business (he asked me for his name not to be mentioned here).

Is this the kind of society we want – one where people are afraid to present their opinions openly, and be listened to; prevented, indirectly or directly, from doing so by a powerful, economic group such as Udaras? I thought, especially since we gained national independence, that the days of humiliating people by making them tug their forelocks was over.

As for Udaras and its spokesperson, Mr. Curran. Instead of presenting specific answers to specific questions on the project’s costings and benefits, all he would say on numerous Highland Radio sound-bites was that he supported the project and that it would not detract from Udaras’s overall budget spend locally (hard to believe when the budget has already been slashed and that other Gaeltachts in Ireland will hardly be so generous as to give Donegal much more money over the addiction centre’s high cost).

Mr. Curran also declined to give investment figures saying, “To date, no contracts have been signed, no budgets have been agreed, so there really isn’t any really figures to be spoken about.” Yet he was adamant forty-five jobs – note the figure is an exact one (for what reason?) – would be created. He also did not know how many of these jobs would be local and what kind of jobs they would be.

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Flowers and forest at Ballyconnell House

And finally, to Udaras HQ in Galway, and communications and marketing manager Siubhán Nic Grianna. Some readers may remember I sent 12 formal, written questions a couple of weeks ago, with a set deadline, to her and to all Donegal members of the group’s national board, namely John Curran, Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin and Daithí Alcorn, as well as its Arranmore-born chairperson, Anna Ní Ghallachair (see post here). Of all the board members and chairperson, only Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin had the professional courtesy of responding in person.

As Ms. Nic Grianna’s provision of relevant information on Udaras’ use of public money has been less than co-operative in the past, I am sad to say her responses show that position has remained unaltered, with no details on the investment (estimated or otherwise) or the true benefits, including jobs, of the proposed addiction clinic. Nor other key details on other aspects of Udaras’ financial operations. I will detail each response to the 12 questions in a future blog.

It is worth noting here that prominent leaders in the addiction field say two such clinics in a rural area such as Donegal is most unusual and, as such, detailed market research would be required to justify it (the other center in Donegal is in Muff). Even in Ireland, there is no such situation.

In conclusion, I believe an important step has been made to open discussions about this proposed addiction clinic – but as well respected community leaders have now said –  release of pertinent information is necessary for a more agreeable and equitable outcome for all concerned.

Questions still unanswered –

  • How can Udaras promise so categorically 45 jobs if, as its spokesman, Mr. Curran, says, no budgets have been agreed, no contracts signed?
  • How can Udaras guarantee more funds will be allocated for other projects (as Mr. Curran states on Highland Radio) when the organisation’s budget has already been severely cut?
  • How exactly will this project impact on the Donegal Gaeltacht-Cloughaneely-Falcarragh community at large?
  • What kind of addictions will be treated within the proposed clinic – drug, alcohol or/and sexual addictions?
  • What other proposals have been put forward for Ballyconnell House as stated by an Udaras spokesperson in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ (after Udaras tourism officer, Gearoid O’Smaolain, said previously ‘no’ proposals were put forward)?
  • What are the reasons these proposals for Ballyconnell House were rejected in favor of an addiction clinic?
  • Which company conducted the feasibility study?

Happy “May Day’ Weekend to Everyone!